Five Questions With: Dr. William T. Chen

Dr. William T. Chen, a gastroenterologist at University Gastroenterology, often treats patients with esophageal disorders, pancreatic disease and other similar issues.

Chen’s nearly 25 years of experience in the field, along with recent research, have led him to become an advocate for recognizing the connection between mental and gut health. Chen says he encourages his patients to be aware of the connection when seeking care. 

PBN: How strong is the brain-gut connection believed to be, and could awareness of this potentially change the way some mental health issues have traditionally been diagnosed and treated?  

CHEN: The idea of the brain-gut connection has been around for a long time. After all, there’s an entire nervous system, the enteric nervous system – sometimes referred to as the “second brain” – that constantly receives and sends signals from our gut to our brain.

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Recently, there has been more awareness and interest in this connection. This is matched by a growing body of research that shows just how intimately connected the brain and the gut are, and how important this two-way communication is to our overall health.

PBN: From your perspective, how receptive has the field of gastroenterology been to the “whole-body” concept with its emphasis not only on gut health but also mental and brain health? 

CHEN: I think that the gastroenterology community has become much more receptive to this concept. The idea of integrative gastroenterology, involving areas like nutrition, cognitive behavioral therapy, and even complimentary approaches in gastroenterology, is coming to the fore at a time when everyone is more aware of the concept of whole-body wellness.

PBN: What are some mental health issues that may be caused or aggravated by problems in the gut?  

CHEN: There is little doubt that having poor control of GI conditions, be it inflammatory bowel disease or reflux, can cause a huge drain on one’s mental health. The importance of screening for mental health concerns while addressing GI illness can’t be emphasized enough. And this is where a team approach to care, involving the gastroenterologist, the primary care provider, a counselor, a dietician and perhaps other medical professionals can be important.

PBN: Is the reverse also true – can mental health conditions cause or worsen gastrointestinal problems?  

CHEN: Absolutely. The idea of the brain affecting the gut has been well-established, even if somewhat vaguely understood in the past. There’s a reason why phrases like “gut-wrenching,” “butterflies in your stomach,” or even “going with your gut” are part of our colloquial everyday language.

PBN: Have you seen evidence of this with any of your own patients?  

CHEN: Yes, I think all gastroenterologists have seen evidence of how changes in mental health can affect GI conditions, and vice versa. It’s also important to understand that gut health awareness isn’t necessarily about making a mental health diagnosis or taking the lead in a treatment plan; it’s about helping patients understand the connection and adding a layer of support to that team approach to whole-body health.

Elizabeth Graham is a PBN contributing writer.